November 16, 2018

The Ramadan Project

After spending my formative years in Jewish day school, it was only natural that I’d rebel in college: I signed up for a class in the New Testament. Not because I was considering conversion, but because I was at an academic disadvantage. My professors assumed basic literacy in Christianity, while I had learned only about the persecutive aspects of the faith — blood libels, the Inquisition, the Crusades, Passion plays.

I never had such a primer on Islam; it never seemed quite as necessary. But in January the Trump administration’s proposed travel restrictions (or ban, depending on who’s speaking) on immigrants from Muslim-majority countries heightened debate over the treatment of Muslims. I realized that even those who would not consider themselves Islamophobic or who, like me, know a handful of Muslims, often came to a communal tables with more baggage than information. And that’s even without mentioning the Israel-shaped elephant in the room.

So, this year I decided to use Ramadan — the ninth month of the Muslim calendar and a month-long fasting holiday that ends this year on the evening of June 24  — as a learning opportunity, a chance to connect the dots and find the common DNA between Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, and these two ancient faiths.

The internet and my network of friends and acquaintances seemed a good place to start, and both turned up a few good nuggets. For instance, while segments of Torah stories appear in the Quran, only the story of Joseph is told from start to finish, and it often is referred to as “the most beautiful of stories.” And when Muslims are preparing to address a crowd, they recite Musa’s Prayer — named after Moses, known for his leadership despite a speech impediment.

I also attended a June 7 community iftar at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, marking the end of that day’s fast and sponsored by NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change. I listened to the presenters — NewGround board members, local city officials and graduates of NewGround’s interfaith fellowship programs — share their stories. As Muslim attendees knelt for Maghrib, the evening prayer, I stood at the back and realized how little I knew.

I did pick up on some comforting similarities. As a language nerd, I noticed that in Ramadan’s traditional greeting, “Ramadan Mubarak,” I barely had to squint linguistically to see a mevorakh (Hebrew for “blessed”). And I had read that the Ramadan fast is known as sawm; the Hebrew word tzom also means fast. My Ramadan project was working its magic already, connecting my Hebrew influences to their Arabic ones.

To guide me further into the semantics of Semitics, I reached out to my childhood friend Shari Lowin, now a professor of religious studies. In one example, she said, there are two words for charity (tzedakah in Hebrew): For Muslims, zakat is like a tithe — a portion of a Muslim’s salary donated to charity — and the language is about “making something pure,” similar to Hebrew’s zakh (shemen zakh, pure oil, is what fueled the miracle of Chanukah).

“According to Muslim scholarly theory,” Lowin said, “giving a portion purifies the rest of your money, makes it yours,” while the other word for charity, sadaqa, is from a root meaning “speak the truth, be sincere,” and denotes a voluntary giving of alms. And Maghrib means “sun” or “west,” phonetically similar to Hebrew words ma’arav (“west”) and Ma’ariv (the evening prayer).

Another friend I worked with about a decade ago, Dilshad Ali, managing editor of the Muslim channel at, filled me in on more worldly similarities between the adherents of our two different faiths — like concerns about assimilation’s impact on her teenage daughter.

“What are the foundations of faith inside of her? Is she strong in those foundations? I love the empowerment and [conversation around] owning your image and story, but I hope she’s still doing her prayers, still fasting, doing whatever is fundamental, and I hope [it] doesn’t get lost along the way,” she said.

The Ali family aims to “be respectful of differences and find similarities,” said Dilshad, whose parents are from India. “We try not to put ourselves in a silo. We are not only friends with people who are Muslim, or only people who are South Asian. I think that is a good model for them, having relationships and friends with people who are different.”

All of this dialogue inspired me, not just to learn more about the Muslim community but to build bridges to it, as well. Here are a few practical ways that I’ve decided to move my own Ramadan project forward — and you can, too.

1. Host Muslim friends for Shabbat dinner and other meals. I’ll account for dietary restrictions around food and alcohol, and strive for accessible conversation about the world, our faiths and our passions. When friends introduced me to my friend Marium, they told me she was “the Muslim Esther,” and that was pretty spot-on. Maybe there’s a “Muslim you” out there, too.

2. Learn about the Quran. Most Jews know very little about the Quran, even though Muslims know stories from the Jewish Bible. What is in the Quran, and how do its stories compare to those in the Torah?

3. Consider my own narrative in light of an interfaith (or multifaith) conversation. What do I need to tell Muslims about Judaism and what do I need to know about Islam for us to understand each other’s stories and be allies for each other’s communities?

4. Learn about programs that use education, dialogue and experiential discovery to connect Muslims and Jews. NewGround runs programs, as well as more in-depth fellowships. The Shalom Hartman Institute’s Muslim Leadership Institute invites North American Muslims to explore Judaism, Israel and Jewish peoplehood. Encounter Programs brings Jewish leaders to Israel for “transforming conflict through face-to-face understanding.”

As Dilshad noted, these relationships take honesty and time.

“It’s who you meet and engage with one on one,” she said. “It works slowly. Our world views expand one person at a time.”